Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Narrative as a Gameplay Mechanic

Mixing story and gameplay has been a challenge to game developers for decades. Ever since games became sophisticated enough to communicate "shoot the thing", developers have experimented with how a strong narrative can fit together with gameplay to make a cohesive whole. Some of them work well, others don't, but few to me have managed to merge story and mechanics as well as the original Thief games did.

Thief Gold (Looking Glass Studios)
 One of the most unique aspects of Thief, especially at that time, is the focus on avoiding direct confrontation and instead remaining in the shadows while killing as few people as possible. Mechanically, the sword combat in Thief is fairly clunky and frustrating, with fights against more than two guards usually ending in defeat. However, the game also uses this in tandem with carefully-written dialogue to make the lethal approach to Thief a more undesirable option than pure stealth. Thief uses this dialogue and the flamboyant voice-acting to organically motivate you to avoid killing guards in the game: not merely because it's difficult from a gameplay standpoint, but because of the sense that killing in Thief carries a lot more weight than simply getting rid of an inconvenience. The guards are portrayed not as traditional 'enemies', but as believable people inhabiting the sprawling City. A section near the beginning of Thief: The Dark Project illustrates this point perfectly:

Some people will no doubt disagree, but I have played very few games that weave characterisation through dialogue as eloquently as Thief does. The primary flaw with dialogue in comparable games such as Dishonored is that it paints the enemies as being little more than one-dimensional psychopaths with little or no interesting depth, almost as if the focus is the make the act of killing them cathartic rather than focusing on properly immersing the player in an authentic setting. In this case, traditional mechanics are allowed to take precedence over a strong sense of narrative. Thief does the opposite: instead focusing on making the NPCs feel like real people inhabiting a living, breathing world. This is why Thief's setting works so brilliantly and why no other game I know of has made me believe in a fictional setting and characters so strongly as Thief has.

Dishonored (Arkane Studios)
While Thief's dialogue works well as a narrative device, it's use as a gameplay mechanic is what elevates Thief beyond many modern stealth titles. Like many games in the genre, Thief uses a progressive AI detection system that works on two levels: one to inform the player of the guards' alert status, and the other to further flesh out the characterisation. When seeing something suspicious, guards will vocalise their alert status with short and snappy pieces of dialogue. The tone and content of the dialogue changes as their alert status escalates. In this manner, the dialogue works as a core gameplay mechanic; it informs the player of the enemies' awareness level while also using the sound propagation system to help the player quickly determine where the enemy is without the need of an on-screen indicator.

In order to accommodate this mechanic though, the dialogue and sound effects in Thief had to be exaggerated in order to clearly communicate vital gameplay information to the player. In a game with a more serious tone, this might have been jarring from a narrative perspective. Thief gets around this problem by simply matching the characterisation of the guards with the sometimes wonky AI system, so they're portrayed as being rather thick and dim-witted (another point the above video demonstrates). The exaggeration of the dialogue ultimately didn't detract from the game as it could have potentially done, but instead it gave The City life and character. It genuinely endeared you to the 'enemies' in the game and motivated you to stick to playing the game non-lethally.

Blast! Fooled again!
 This deft mixing of story and gameplay is one of the main reasons I continue to regularly replay the Thief games. While the actual plots behind the games were generally sparse and simplistic, the quality of Thief's storytelling remains well above what most modern games seem capable of achieving. Whether the new THIEF reboot successful recaptures that same subtlety and elegance that made the original games so compelling has yet to be seen.

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